From Coverture to Control: The Empowerment of Seneca Village’s Women

Via Municipal Archives

Editor’s Note:

Constructed in 1858 by designers Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, Central Park remains an essential part of New York City, known around the world as a masterpiece of landscape architecture and model for urban parks. But lesser known is the rich history of this land prior to the Park’s creation.

Sara Cedar Miller, the Central Park Conservancy’s historian emerita, has conducted extensive research on this time. Her work, including her latest book Before Central Park, “chronicles two and a half centuries of pre-Park history, telling the stories of Indigenous hunters, enslaved people and enslavers, American patriots and British loyalists, Irish pig farmers, tavern owners, Catholic sisters, Jewish protesters, and the Black landowners of Seneca Village”—many of them women.

Seneca Village was a bustling and vibrant community, eventually displaced through eminent domain for the construction of Central Park. This excerpt provides a snapshot of real estate ownership in the Village, capturing a pivotal moment in history and reflecting the broader trends in women’s and Black rights in 19th-century America. Despite vast legal restrictions, a number of determined women found novel ways to circumvent these barriers and gain property ownership in Seneca Village. The following vignettes demonstrate the complex hurdles these women faced, as well as their ingenuity in navigating them.

As Sara writes, “These instances from Seneca Village history reflect the indomitable spirit of its women. In a time when gender and racial discrimination were systemic, they [left] a legacy of empowerment and resilience.”

"Right is of no sex, truth is of no color" Frederick Douglass declared in December 1847’s inaugural issue of The North Star. With those words, he captured the profound connection between Black rights and women's rights.

Douglass was one of only 32 men who signed the Declaration of Sentiments at the historic Seneca Falls convention for women’s rights. His commitment to gender equality found a legislative echo in April 1848, when New York State passed the revolutionary Married Women's Property Act. Before this landmark moment, the legal landscape adhered to the principles of coverture, a doctrine aptly summarized by English jurist William Blackstone: "By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in the law."

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Seneca Village was situated along what is now the Park’s perimeter from West 83rd to West 89th Street.

This meant that upon marriage, legally, a woman's existence effectively merged with her husband's, under “his wing and protection.” Or, as historian Norma Basch so succinctly put it: "In the eyes of the law, the husband and wife were one person—the husband."

Under the grip of coverture, married women were denied basic property rights. They could not purchase real estate, enter into contracts, or even draft a will without their husband's consent. Before the transfer of property owned by a married couple to their prospective buyer was declared to be legal, wives were required to submit to a private examination by a court officer ensuring they were entering into the conveyance "freely and voluntarily without any threat or fear or compulsion of her husband.”In 1825, John Whitehead, a white cartman, began to sell land in Seneca Village to trustees of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and numerous Black families. His sudden death in 1835 threw his property into the hands of his second wife and widow, Maria. Despite being the rightful owner, Maria could only convey a portion of the property to her stepdaughter Mary through Mary’s husband, Richard Turner. Mary, as a married woman, was legally incapacitated from controlling her inheritance directly.

In 1841, Maria remarried Abram Palmer, losing her widow status and thus the right to manage her late husband's assets. She had to transfer her "dower and Thirds rights" to Mary. Only in 1848, with the Married Women's Property Act, would Mary finally gain full control of her inherited properties. When the City purchased the Turner property in 1856 for Central Park, it was Mary who received the money and her name on the condemnation maps.

Until 1848, the limitations on property ownership were particularly stifling for women in Seneca Village, where owning land was seen as a path to empowerment and independence. Two-thirds of all landowners in Seneca Village were African-American, making the Village an exceptional community for 19th-century New York. The path to suffrage and citizenship was an important incentive for African-American males to own property, but that path was not available to all women until the twentieth century.

Recent research in Before Central Park describes the strategies some landowning couples devised to circumvent legal barriers and place property solely in the wife's name.

In 1825, Elizabeth Harding, the unmarried daughter of a formerly enslaved father, purchased a lot in Seneca Village. Her decision may have been strategic: she married waiter Obadiah McCollin just months later and retained sole ownership through an antenuptial agreement, an early form of a prenuptial agreement.

Another exception to these legal barriers was Cloe Smith, the only married woman in Seneca Village to acquire property before the 1848 act. Like Elizabeth, she likely employed an antenuptial agreement to maintain her property in her name despite marriage.

Despite the legal constraints, Obadiah and Elizabeth Harding McCollin found a workaround in 1839 when they needed to transfer a shared lot into Elizabeth's name. They engaged attorney Augustus Floyd, as a third-party intermediary. This practice illustrated the lengths couples had to go to exercise their property rights.

Even more intriguing was Sarah "Sally" Wilson's acquisition of property; it was facilitated by a neighboring white couple, the Wagstaffs, who were also her employers. Their intervention ensured that the property remained solely in Sally's name, granting her freedom from her husband's control—a rarity in those times.

Property inheritance also posed challenges. In the Marshall family, Joseph Marshall left lots in Seneca Village to his wife, Elizabeth, and their four daughters. When two daughters had died by 1840, the family—husbands included—deeded the lots to the remaining daughters, Mary Joseph and Rebecca, ensuring that the property remained in their possession rather than being automatically transferred to their husbands.

10 3 Albro and Mary Lyons

A double ambrotype portrait of Albro Lyons, Sr. (left) and Mary Joseph Lyons (née Marshall) (right) circa 1860 via the Photographs and Prints Division of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library. Though Mary did not live in Seneca Village, she inherited her father’s land there. Despite being married, she was able to retain ownership of this property.

The Property Act may have been a watershed moment granting married women the right to own property, but even with its implementation, property transactions between spouses required third-party involvement.

For instance, in 1849, Rev. James and Elizabeth Gloucester enlisted attorney William Talmage to facilitate the transfer of their Seneca Village property. They sold the property to Talmage for $10 dollars, who then sold the property back to Elizabeth for a nominal fee. These real estate deals were part of her remarkable career as one of the wealthiest Black women in America.

Discover the untold story of Elizabeth Gloucester, a property owner in Seneca Village who became one of the wealthiest Black women in America.

A similar situation unfolded when Amanda Sophia Sipkins Cosby received money through inheritance. Her father's will stipulated that the money was for her "sole and separate use," protecting her assets from her husband's debts.

Hannah S. Carter, a seamstress and widow of Seneca Village landowner John Carter, stood her ground when she attempted to be reimbursed for the $800 in assessments that she paid the City. The payment was for improvements adjacent to her Village property, but they never came to pass. In her will, she bequeathed her possessions, a trust fund, and charged her husband's niece, Eliza Elliott, to continue to fight for the money, safeguarding her investments even beyond the grave.

These instances from Seneca Village history reflect the indomitable spirit of its women. In a time of immense systemic gender and racial discrimination, they navigated legal hurdles, challenged conventions, and claimed their rightful place as property owners, leaving a legacy of empowerment and resilience.

Sara Cedar Miller is the Conservancy’s historian emerita.

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